November 2009: Your Garden

November 2009: Your Garden

Bless this mess

There are many parallels between gardening and housekeeping.

Each is a commitment that never ends. You need to keep a regular schedule and find ways of maintaining interest and regenerating enthusiasm. Things get out of hand sometimes, but often enough you feel you’ve been part of creating something beautiful (which will perish very soon after you leave the scene).

On the other hand, the analogy breaks down badly when it comes to clean-up and cooking. Leaves and frosted flower borders are not messes to be blown off, bagged up and carted away. Soil is not a carpet that needs to be swept and freshly laid with new mulch each year. Nor is it a soup or cake to which you can add ingredients that create an instant masterpiece.

Decomposing leaves and other plant debris make humus, the foundation of soil. They make it slowly but they make it exceedingly well; better than anything, in fact. Worshiped by the English as the vaunted leaf mold, they are cherished by that island’s legendary gardeners. Yet we Americans tend to regard them as a bloody nuisance.

Some people are inundated up to their ankles with oak leaves and understandably choose to blow or rake them into the woods or bag them up each year. But by short circuiting nature’s recycling machine (as they decay, leaves add micronutrients and texture to soil), they create a sterile, compacted dirt yard composed only of moss (not that I have anything against moss gardens, mind you), instead of a living, healthy soil that could sustain a diversity of ferns, hellebores, epimediums, Virginia sweetspire, or azaleas.

Renting or purchasing a leaf shredder will greatly reduce the volume of leaves and prime them for spreading out as mulch or quick composting. But if you’re going to bag them anyway, why not produce some free mulch or amendment for starting beds next spring? It’s much better than anything you can buy and you’re starting a cycle of renewal in your very own ecosystem.

Sprinkle each bag’s leaves with enough water to moisten them. Tie them up, poke uniform holes for air flow and stow them under the porch, in the basement or garage. By March or April haul them out and spread the contents over your beds instead of buying bags from the big box stores.

Try to keep all refuse on your property in some form, whether shredded or composted, or just raked out onto beds or tree rings. If you do need to purchase soil amendment or fertilizer, choose slow release organics over chemicals, especially manure products which recycle one of the major pollutants of the Chesapeake Bay.


— Bag the leaves?
— Build the soil.
— Plant firm bulbs.

Legendary Gloucester (Virginia, not England) bulb grower Brent Heath swears by leaf mold as mulch for the daffodil beds at his nursery on the Eastern Shore. He warns against pre-emergents and chemical treatments and counsels building the soil with organics as the best bulb maintenance program. He cautions against fertilizing bulbs this time of year. They’ve already formed their flowers deep inside and raw fertilizer in the hole can burn tender roots. All they need to spring into life is moisture and time.

Look for firm clean bulbs. Thanksgiving is a good goal for getting them in the ground, though you can plant through to Christmas if you have to. One way or another, get them in the ground this fall, because they won’t store over winter.

It’s never too late for a fresh start no matter the season. What we do this fall lays the foundation for spring. Turn everything you can back into the soil but don’t track that dirt inside!—Cathy Clary

Lovin’ the oven

On your mark—get set—ROAST. The holiday season can sometimes feel like one long culinary relay, dashing from gobblers to towers of sugary treats, so it’s essential that your oven is ready to keep up. Cleaning out old spills can be as simple as flipping a switch, depending on your oven model, so there’s no need to fear your little fire-breather. Here’s some tips:

1. Remove racks and drip pans—they’re easier to clean outside of the oven.

2. Quick! Classify: Is your oven self- or continuous cleaning? A self-cleaning oven uses high temperatures to transform any spill into a pile of ash. Keep a window open to let out fumes and wipe down the door and interior afterwards to clear up residue, but avoid abrasives or cleaners—they aren’t necessary.
3. Continuous cleaning ovens (also called textured ovens) use a rough porcelain surface to let food burn off gradually with regular oven use. Just like with self-cleaning ovens, you’ll need to wipe it all down when cool and keep away from abrasives, cleaners and scouring pads.

4. For your regular, no-frills oven, wiping with a hot, wet cloth after use will do wonders to prevent scorching or build-up. More preventative measures include putting foil-lined trays beneath whatever you’re baking, or even covering the oven bottom with foil—just be careful to avoid blocking vents.

5. Gotta scrub? Spray on some oven cleaner (left on for 6-8 hours, and rinsed, it’ll do the trick) or sprinkle baking soda as a gentle abrasive that also picks up grease.—Lucy Zhou


This Cape Cod in North Downtown has been updated with new stucco siding, an arched dormer and tasteful side additions to the original 1949 floor plan. It’s bold not only for being a bit self-consciously fresher and preppier than many of its super-serious Federal-style neighbors, but precisely because of that old British phone booth as lawn ornament.—Katherine Ludwig